A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS 
Spring 2019 / VOL. 19 ISSUE 1

Fewer than 16 miles from central Manhattan lies Hart Island, a 101-acre cemetery and the final resting place of over one million New Yorkers. Every city has its own Potter’s Field, but as One Million American Dreams, the new documentary from Irish producer/director Brendan J. Byrne reveals, this is no ordinary cemetery.

 

Since 1869, it has used inmates from nearby Rikers Island to carry out the weekly interments, burying poor and forgotten citizens for 50 cents an hour.

 

“Buried” is a rather loose term though, as archive footage and photographs show: the cheap pine boxes are piled up like firewood in rows many coffins deep, and when they finally decompose away, the trenches are used again.

 

Run now by the city’s Department of Corrections, Hart Island is strictly off limits to the public – even mourners have to jump through paperwork hoops to get permission to visit – and even when they do visit there’s little to see: this is a metropolitan mass grave that’s bereft of flowers, wreaths and gravestones. 

 

Following its recent theater release in Los Angeles and New York itself – and soon to be on VOD – this documentary is a surprising, touching and often upsetting look at a secret and scandalous side of one of the biggest cities in the world.

 

Narrated by Sam Rockwell – winner of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Martin McDonagh’s movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and nominated in the same category this year for Vice – One Million American Dreams loosely follows the stories of four families who had someone special fall victim to tragedy, addiction, or bureaucratic indifference.

 

Most affecting are the stories of Cuban daughter Hilda, whose father Ciro left for America – like so many others – in 1980. The family stayed in touch for years until Ciro fell into dementia and was admitted to hospital. Hilda and her mother weren’t able to come and visit – and then there was silence.

 

In this movie, Hilda finally takes the trip to New York after New York Times journalist Nina Bernstein wrote about Hart Island, including how 22 corpses ended up frozen in a medical school morgue, bought out to be practiced on by students and then put back into the cold for the next lesson.

 

There’s also the story of Katrina, a single mother with a crowded house full of kids and a resignation to her life of poverty and struggle; she has bravely tried to sue New York City, desperate only to find out where her young baby, Anthony, was buried.

 

No one seems to know, and it’s clear that, for well over a century, New York hasn’t really cared about how the “other half” lives, let alone where they went when they died. The contrast between the “haves” and the “have nots” is stark – and of course it still resonates today. 

 

Talking about the movie, Byrne recalled how – like many others – he fell in love with New York when he first visited there in 1983, and has returned regularly ever since.

 

“But when I learned of the story of Hart Island, it connected with me immediately. It seemed to encapsulate something deep I have long felt about this great city and country, a country full of extremes and contradictions; a country so full of promise, but at times heartless and unforgiving.”

 

Byrne, whose long career has featured emotional – and often controversial – documentaries on a number of subjects, is hoping that this movie will help shine a light on the movement that’s trying to make Hart Island accessible to the public.

 

He’s also hoping that it might help get some answers – and closure – to the many people who have family members resting in Hart Island today, or from decades past. 

New Irish Documentary Looks at Lost Lives of Hart Island

 

By: James Bartlett

Brendan J. Bryne

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